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Two Good Movies

Meeting the Muse (Diabolo Ballet)

Meeting the Muse (Diablo Ballet) © 2015 David Jouris/Motion Pictures

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser February 2016)

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Twenty years ago at a party in San Francisco, the host introduced me to a man named Jack and said, “You are both serious film buffs. Have at it.”

A silence fell and I realized Jack was waiting for me to begin, so I said, “I just saw Basquiat. Didn’t believe it or like it, and I thought the paintings of his they chose to show were ill-chosen.”

“Haven’t seen it,” said Jack. “Probably won’t. So what have you liked recently?”

“Nothing much,” I said. “You?”

He reeled off the names of several hyper-violent movies, to which I replied, “You know, I avoid violent movies. My nervous system can’t take it. I have nightmares for weeks after, so…”

“Then you’ve missed all the best films of the last twenty years,” he said, cutting me off.

“I entirely disagree,” I said. “I think hyper-violent movies are a form of pornographic entrapment and entrainment.”

And that was the last I saw of Jack.

Thus the two movies I am about to recommend are not only two of my three favorite films of 2015—the third being Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary I reviewed in a recent article—they are not violent, nor will they be nominated for Academy Awards or play in a multiplex near you. But they are available in DVD and unless your taste runs more along the lines of Jack’s, you will like them and may love them.

Meet The Patels is a movie conceived, written, and directed by Ravi and Geeta Patel, brother and sister Indian-Americans in their early thirties. Advertised as a romantic comedy, the film is really about what it is to be the American children of traditional parents from India for whom successfully marrying off their children to beget grandchildren is far more important than anything else, and what it is to be those traditional parents living in the United States as part of the enormous East Indian community of North America.

The main characters in the movie are Ravi and Geeta and their real-life parents, and though the film purports to be about Ravi and his quest to find a mate who will please his parents, the real stars of the film are the father and mother. Their efforts and struggles and transformations supply the richest moments in the film, the funniest, the saddest, and the most transformative.

Among the many things I love about this movie are the constantly surprising turns of events and changes of heart. Ravi, an actor living with his filmmaker sister in Los Angeles, has many non-Indian friends and is a pan-racial everyman, an ideal foil for his parents and the people he meets in his quest for love, his affect one of aimless good nature. His sister Geeta is shooting the entire film as Ravi’s largely unseen but often heard companion in the quest to find an Indian woman Ravi would like to marry and his parents will approve of.

If you are curious to know more about Indian-American culture, and you enjoy thought-provoking non-idiotic comedies, Meet The Patels is for you.

The other movie I wish to tout is The Second Mother, a Brazilian film with the Portuguese title Que Horas Ela Volta? (What Time Will She Return?) This film is subtle, funny, sad, and masterful, every scene a visual gem—an extremely personal story involving a few exquisitely portrayed characters that reveals much about contemporary Brazilian culture.

I don’t want to tell too much because the unveiling of the mysteries is what makes the movie so compelling. American movies of such subtlety and veracity are almost inconceivable today, which is a pity, but so it goes. It is not that such films can’t be made; they simply would never be distributed for anyone to see.

I’m sure Meet The Patels was deemed fundable because the producers knew millions of East Indians would want to see the film, and thank goodness for that. Thank goodness, too, for The Second Mother and those countries where cinematic art need not always pander to the lowest common denominator.

Written and directed by Anna Muylaert, The Second Mother stars Regina Casé as Val, the housemaid of a wealthy family in Sao Paulo. Val lives in a small room in the large house of her employees, a middle-aged couple and their teenaged son for whom Val has been surrogate mother from the time the boy was little. Having left her own daughter Jessica in the care of relatives so she, Val, could come to the city to earn money to support Jessica, Val has not seen her daughter for ten years when Jessica, now a headstrong young woman, arrives in Sao Paulo to live with Val while studying for a college entrance exam.

As with Meet The Patels, The Second Mother continuously surprised me, not because of plot twists, but because of the unexpected yet wholly plausible transformations of the uncannily real characters. Meet the Patels is rightly called a docudrama, whereas The Second Mother is a brilliant play, brilliantly acted and filmed—Regina Casé a marvel.

As with all my favorite films, the stories and images and performances in Meet The Patels and The Second Mother continued to resonate for days after, and in thinking about why I like these two movies so much, I realize they illuminate many of the same things I explore in my fiction, particularly the individual’s struggle to find meaning and love in a society ferociously intent on fitting everyone into a few unnatural compartments or crushing them beneath the wheel of absurd and outmoded traditions.

Humor, love, generosity, kindness, honesty, acceptance, forgiveness; all of these are modeled so organically in these movies, it wasn’t until the films were over that I became aware of how powerfully these qualities, or lack of them, shaped the lives of the characters. Marcia and I both laughed out loud many times during each of these films, and we cried, too.

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Trust

Question & Reply

Question & Reply painting by Nolan Winkler

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2015)

“You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.” Anton Chekhov

Trust is a tricky thing. Long ago, I held writing workshops for groups of eight people meeting for two hours once a week in my living room, each course lasting eight weeks. At the outset, I would reiterate what I had explained to prospective participants when they called to sign up for the process: we would be doing my original writing exercises and there would be no lecturing or criticism or analysis of anything we wrote, by me or anyone in the group, and no one had to read aloud anything he or she wrote unless he or she wanted to.

Of the hundreds of writers who participated in these workshops over the years, nearly all believed there would be lecturing and analysis and criticism and judgment of their writing, despite my proclamations to the contrary. And almost all believed if they did not read aloud what they wrote, they would be made to feel stupid and ashamed.

By the end of the first session, there were usually two or three participants trusting they would not be criticized or shamed when they read or did not read aloud what they had written. But there were always people who needed three or four sessions to fully trust they would simply be listened to when they read what they wrote, and so they had to wait a long time to find out that being listened to by a group of non-critical people can be a deeply illuminating and inspiring experience.

And it was only when everyone in the group fully trusted that no one would criticize or be criticized, that we truly became a group and not eight individuals separated by fear and mistrust doing writing exercises. Everyone in the group would feel this momentous shift when the last doubter surrendered to the embrace of non-judgmental group mind. Talk about synergy! Talk about people taking chances, going deeper, and discovering things about their expressive talents they would never have experienced without trusting that anything they wrote was allowed.

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.” William Shakespeare

I make a part of my minimalist living selling my books and music and art. Customers can buy things from me using their credit cards via my web site or they can send a check to my post office box or they can bump into me at the farmer’s market and give me cash. I have a policy, established two years ago, that I no longer send or deliver orders until I have the money in hand. Had I established this policy ten years ago, I would be thousands of dollars richer than I am today.

Why did I continue to trust people after numerous people did not pay me for goodies received? Because I prefer trusting people to not trusting people, and I was embarrassed to imply to my friends that I didn’t trust them. But the fact is, since most of my customers are my friends, most of the people who stiffed me, knowingly or unwittingly, were my friends. I think poverty and forgetfulness, rather than malice and greed, were behind most of the stiffing, but still.

Yet it wasn’t until a very close friend ordered several hundred dollars worth of books and music CDs to give as Christmas gifts, and I gleefully sent off the big package to her before I received her check (money I was counting on) and then I never got her check, though she claimed it was immediately cashed yet was unable to confirm who cashed it, that I finally installed my policy of having the money in hand before shipping the goods.

And, yes, I have since lost sales to friends infuriated with me for not trusting them, which is why I say trust is a tricky thing.

“Trust, but verify.” Ronald Reagan

When I moved to Sacramento in 1980, my neighbors told me that our neighborhood was so safe no one ever locked their doors and there had never been a theft of anything for as long as anyone could remember. And so I never locked my house or my car and I left my bike unlocked on the front porch, and for several years what my neighbors told me proved true, and life was groovy.

Then one night somebody stole a neighbor’s Volkswagen. And in a twinkling, everything changed. Everyone started locking their cars and locking their doors. I continued to leave my bicycle on the front porch unlocked, but then it was stolen, and thereafter I kept my bike in the locked basement accessed through a padlocked gate.

And the unexpected result of this rash of thefts, this new economic reality, was that my neighbors began to mistrust each other and me, and there were fewer block parties, life became less casual, and people spent more time indoors. It seems that once mistrust becomes the overriding modus operandi, it permeates everything.

Then I moved to a working class neighborhood in Berkeley and my neighbors told me there hadn’t been a theft of anything in the hood for as long as anyone could remember, at least fifty years. And until rent control ended and the dot com explosion rendered Berkeley unaffordable for most of my neighbors, our neighborhood was blissfully safe and crime free. But once the street was gentrified, robberies became commonplace and gloomy mistrust descended and life sucked.

Then I moved to Mendocino, and the first joke I was told by two gregarious locals who sat with me in the café and paid for my tea was, “Why do you lock your car in Mendocino? Because if you don’t, someone will leave a bag of zucchini on your front seat.”

So far no zucchini, though I never lock my truck.

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Lives Unlived

(This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser July 2011)

“Every art has its secrets, and the secrets of distilling are being lost the way the old songs were lost. When I was a boy there wasn’t a man in the barony but had a hundred songs in his head, but with people running here, there and everywhere, the songs were lost…” Frank O’Connor

I am reading The Collected Stories of Frank O’Connor for the third time in twelve years. Enough time has passed since my last reading of his remarkable stories so I have forgotten sufficient details and plot twists and endings to make the stories new to me again; and in some ways they are better than new because I know them now as I know favorite pieces of music or beloved paintings, and in this further experience of them I discover more and more of the genius they contain.

Frank O’Connor, who died in 1966, was Irish, and most of his stories are set in Cork and Dublin in the 1940’s and 1950’s. O’Connor was hailed by W.B. Yeats as the Chekhov of Irish literature, yet very few of my well-read friends have heard of him, and I, a voracious story reader since childhood, discovered him relatively late in my incessant search for great stories. I should note that many of my well-read friends are aghast at my reading habits which now largely involve reading and re-reading a relatively few dead writers of short stories, with barely an American among them. I find the most ballyhooed contemporary writers unreadable, and if not for a Brit or two, regarding fiction it could truly be said I read only the dead.

I have imbibed Kim by Rudyard Kipling seven times in the last twenty years, and I will probably read that astonishing book again soon. I do not read many novels, even those written by my favorite dead short story writers, so Kim is something of an anomaly for me. Every line of that book is to my taste exquisite poetry; I don’t so much read Kim as inhabit its pages. But I was speaking of Frank O’Connor.

“What makes him so great?” asked one of my well-read friends who had never heard of Frank O’Connor.

“Well,” I said, “when I read Bashevis Singer or Maugham or Wharton or Maupassant, I am enthralled by their artistry and insight, yet I know I am capable of writing stories that at least approximate the structures of their creations if not the mastery of their lines. But Frank O’Connor’s stories, though only eight to fifteen pages in length, are essentially novels with plots spanning many years, yet they have the power and immediacy and emotional depth of a D.H. Lawrence story focusing on a particular moment in time.”

We would rather be ruined than changed;

We would rather die in our dread

Than climb the cross of the moment

And let our illusions die.

W.H. Auden

Nearly all of Frank O’Connor’s short stories illuminate the lives of people who would rather be living other lives—a phenomenon that has always fascinated me. Born to parents who did not live the lives they said they wanted to live, and having known many people, including myself, who have spent large chunks of our lives not living the lives we say we want to live, O’Connor’s stories continuously strike chords in me and ring loud bells of recognition. I am not speaking of people who wish to be something or someone beyond the reach of all but a few mortals, but of people who knowingly repeat, for years and decades and lifetimes, painfully self-limiting patterns they are entirely aware of yet feel powerless to change.

My father found himself at fifty entrenched in a life he loathed, living where he did not want to live, and married to a woman, my mother, he didn’t like. The last of his four children had finally escaped his direct control, he owned a house outright worth millions, and he was a successful psychotherapist, a trade he might have plied anywhere; yet he could not bring himself to change, and so daily drank himself into a stupor and outwardly blamed his misfortune on my mother.

I hitchhiked to Atherton from Santa Cruz for my father’s fiftieth birthday party, though at the age of twenty-three I was a source of shame and disappointment to my parents. I had defied their wishes and dropped out of college to create a life that made sense to me apart from the expectations of others. I had lived as a vagabond from nineteen to twenty-two, and only recently settled among the communards of Santa Cruz (circa 1972) where I earned my living as a musician and laborer. I did not often visit my parents in those days because to tarry in my father’s presence was to invite diatribes of condemnation.

On the morning following his fiftieth birthday party, as I was about to head home to Santa Cruz, my father invited me to join him for coffee on the terrace. I vividly remember that morning—a scorcher in late August—my father looking haggard and sad, the strong black coffee not yet mitigating his hangover. And before he could launch into yet another sermon about me pissing my life away, I said, “So, Dad, now that you’re fifty…if you could live anywhere and be anything you want to be, what would you do?”

“Anything and anywhere?” he said, slowly shaking his head. “I would buy a house near the water in Carmel and be a sculptor. Wood and stone.”

“Why don’t you?”

“I’m too old,” he said bitterly. “And your mother would never let me.”

“Sure she would. She loves Carmel. She loves the ocean. And you know she’s happiest when you’re happy.”

“No,” he said, continuing to shake his head. “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”

“Fifty is not old, Dad. Why not give it a try?”

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” he said, sneering at me. “Your mother would never allow it. I’d have to divorce her to have the life I want.”

“So why not get a divorce?”

“She couldn’t survive without me. I wouldn’t do that to her. No…we’re stuck.”

Thus spoke the renowned psychotherapist; and not a word of what he said was true. My mother had recently begun practicing law and was earning a good salary. She would gladly have sold their crumbling house to start anew in Carmel; and had my father been bold enough to divorce her, she would have settled for a fortune and lived no more unhappily than she did in their loveless marriage.

We said our uneasy goodbyes and I walked down the hill to the Alameda de las Pulgas where I got a ride from a guy in a convertible Volkswagen going to Woodside. From Woodside I rode in the back of a pickup over the crest of the coast range and down through the redwoods of La Honda to the hamlet of San Gregorio where I bought cheese and bread and chocolate for a picnic on the beach. And as I walked out to the ocean, I passed the beautiful farm near the mouth of the San Gregorio where my father had taken me when I was eight and again when I was twelve, a farm for sale that my father said he wanted to buy so he could live near the ocean and sculpt wood and stone.

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived life of the parent.” Carl Jung

A sunny morning, the tide stupendously low, I walk the far reaches of the beach at Big River, and sing a wordless song to the drone of the roaring waves. Now an osprey plummets out of the cerulean sky and splashes down in the nearby shallows to catch a silver sliver of life.

“Good omen,” I say, watching in awe as the raptor flies up from the water to roost in a cliff-hanging pine; and sure enough, here ahead of me on the untrod sand is a magnificent walking stick, long and sturdy and bleached white by the sun.

Enter the pelicans—twelve apostles—fifty yards offshore, gliding northward in an undulating line, the tips of their wings nearly touching the dark waters.

“Omens galore,” I say, as the osprey dives again.